Christmas Eve in 2006 fell on a Sunday. The air crackled with the excitement of the children as the congregation gathered for church that morning. As was our custom, I started the service by asking if there was anything people would like to pray for. One girl, a quiet, reflective preschooler, raised her hand.
“I’d like to pray for Santa Claus.” She paused, looking up quickly at my face. “Because it’s very cold out and his job is dangerous.” Her little voice was quiet but resolute as she made her request.
Now, I was fresh out of seminary and pretty determined to do everything right. Like many before me, I was going to save humanity with my passion for properness. I would gather God’s people as I preached the right sermons, led the right Bible studies and wrote the right liturgies. Praying for a fictional character clearly missed the mark.
My mind whirled. What would people think of me as I prayed for Santa Claus and his non-existent journey around the world? What would God think of me? Could I cover it with a more general prayer for all of those who faced danger that night? One glance at the girl’s concerned face told me that I could not. Her trust was in a God who would protect Santa Claus and a church who would deliver that prayer.
So, in between offering thanks for a family visit and asking for healing for a sick parent, I prayed for the safe journey of a jolly red man delivering presents by flying sleigh.
Buried beneath that sentence was a silent, fervent prayer that God would forgive me for wasting God’s time. And buried deep beneath that was a lurking fear that I had committed sacrilege, taken Christ out of Christmas and given into satanic forces by idolizing Santa. (After all, if you rearrange the letters, they spell Satan.) The fires of hell were probably being stoked in that very instant.
I should have, I supposed, figured out a way to be a better gatekeeper, to manage the child’s concerns without interrupting the important work of Ruling the Universe.
But you don’t need me to tell you that there’s a Bible story exactly like that. It’s about the gatekeepers, worried that children’s petty concerns would get in the way of Jesus’ important work. To which he says, “they are my important work.”
There are sometimes small moments in which you realize that your theology needs shaking up and for me this was one of them. Somehow, in my core, my belief in God had gotten tangled up with some pretty shady theology. While I would have said I believed in a loving, inclusive, expansive God, inwardly I was still afraid of a judging, exclusive, proper God. You know, the kind of god cares more about what we say when we pray than where our hearts are. The kind who’s more concerned that our prayers are Good and Right and preferably in King James English than that they’re heartfelt moments of connection and opportunities for a developing relationship.
I suppose it’s not enough to offer a full theology of prayer based on the simple fact that I wasn’t struck by lightning in the process of praying a completely useless prayer. Still, I can say that God was in that moment. And if God was in that silly, awkward church-blooper moment, than I suppose we might find God in all sorts of prayers–the poorly thought out, the desperate tumble of words, the dumbstruck silence and even the proper, stilted, struggling version of those of us who still aim to Do It Right.
When I remember that day, I am reminded that people of faith have a sacred trust. Whether it’s with our family, our friends or our church, when we claim to be praying people we have an obligation to follow through. But that’s the only obligation we have.
We don’t have to figure out how prayer works. We don’t have to be worthy. We don’t have to determine who else is worthy. We simply have to uphold our end of the deal: to take it to God.
All these years later, I still take that as a both an awesome challenge and a great comfort.